Indigo – Destiny's Story

My fascination with indigo began when I stumbled upon an exhibit in Washington D.C.’s Textile Museum: Blue. (All my great adventures in life have begun with just that phrase: “stumbled upon”.)

The exhibit was a collection of the leading artists from every indigo-producing country in the world, except perhaps from the Tuareg whose fascination and devotion to the dye have turned their skin a blueish tint. Neither were the ancient Celts mentioned who tattooed patterns on themselves with woad, producing the “blue line” so popular again with young people.

I hadn’t heard of Rowland Ricketts (www.rickettsindigo.com) at the time but his rectangles of deep indigo blue fabric with stunning circles of white hung from the ceiling at the exhibit, resembling calendars of the moon.

The great artists and artisans of Japan were of course featured; one video showed a master dyer moving from steaming piles of composting indigo on his porch to the inner rooms where the plant was further transformed into the dye.

“Shibori” was explained and exhibited as well. www.seamwork.com/issues/2015/08/shibori-dyeing

At the time, I was genuinely bi-coastal, dividing my time between the San Francisco Bay Area and rural New York State. My Berkeley partner, Judith, and I introduced ourselves to Rebecca Burgess who was just organizing the Fibershed project (www.fibershed.org).

The premise of Fibershed is based upon a return to growing/raising/processing/transforming one’s own wardrobe within one's home watershed. This simple and dynamic idea had a similar and powerful attraction, quite like that of Bioregionalism’s call to care for one’s watershed. Both led to hundreds of small sustainable watershed/fibershed organizations.

Indeed this is for us the work of restoration; many parts of the planet still thrive within their own watersheds and fibersheds. Globalization has not yet destroyed all of them with forced penetration of mass-marketed throwaway fast fashion. The timeliness of these concepts is proven by their rapid spread and attraction.

A workshop we participated in with Fibershed was making felt panels for the yurt they were building. And when Fibershed brought Rowland Ricketts to Marin County to teach the building of a traditional Japanese-style indigo composting floor, I was there to help. The composting floor was set up as a cooperative: those who grew indigo and dried the leaf and participated in the composting would get a percent of the eventual dyestuff.

To our astonishment, in the first year of cultivating our indigo bed, and harvesting three times, we produced only fifteen pounds of the dried leaf to contribute to the pile. The pile requires a minimum of 400 pounds to be heavy enough to build the necessary heat! Luckily there were many more growers and a lot more dried leaf to create the pile. The result of the composting is a lovely, dark, crumbly dry “sukumo.” Our proportional share was nine pounds. More processing is needed to turn the sukumo into the actual indigo dyestuff…this last stage is also best done with a large group and a large quantity of sukumo.

I had the pleasure of participating in an indigo dyeing workshop at Home Textile Tool Museum. They also demonstrated how different fibers take the indigo dye differently, the principal difference being whether it is an animal or vegetable fiber.

One of the outstanding features of many living history museums are their gardens. Here at the Home Textile Tool Museum, one can see the alchemical moment when flax is transformed into linen by a master spinner.